When the Game Is the Controller

By David Walsh, founder and president of the National Institute on Media and the Family. His latest book is “No. Why Kids — of All Ages — Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It” (THE WASHINGTON POST, 07/07/07):

Addiction is a word we associate with drugs and alcohol. We think of addicts as people whose lives spin out of control. Prioritizing the object of their addiction above all else, addicts can become erratic, irresponsible and dangerous, damaging their families, careers and their sense of self. This isn’t exactly what one pictures when thinking about children who play video games a lot. Nevertheless, video game addiction is a real problem, and it’s getting worse.

The American Medical Association (AMA), the nation’s largest and most influential group of physicians, warned parents last month about potential harm from excessive video game playing. The AMA asked the American Psychiatric Association to further study the long-term effects of video game use, including video game addiction. Respected experts, including doctors such as those at the AMA, have spoken out about problems associated with video games. Some games are too graphically violent or are filled with sexual content that is inappropriate for children. Games can make children aggressive and contribute to attention disorders. Children who play video games a lot seem to have more trouble in school. But this AMA statement was something new. For the first time, a major American medical organization acknowledged the dangers of video game addiction.

Remember that a few decades ago, gambling addiction was unheard of. Now we recognize that the pattern of behavior in someone who obsessively gambles matches the profile of addiction. Similarly, video game addiction fits the profile. Children and adults who are addicted to video games spend as many waking hours as possible playing games and often forgo sleep to keep playing. They lie about the extent of their game-playing and often let everything else in their lives, including school, work and relationships, fall by the wayside. They’re irritable when not playing and have checked out from the rest of the world when the game controllers are in their hands. In short, they are people trapped in a self-reinforcing behavioral pattern, people who need help.

The devastating effects of video game addiction are more easily seen in places where consumer technology is more advanced than in the United States. South Korea, for instance, is about two years ahead of us, and the prevalence of game addiction in that country is chilling. Everywhere in South Korea, all day long, youths play online games, listen to music, watch television, record movies and surf the Web on their cellphones. South Korea has 40 government-sponsored treatment programs to deal with video game and Internet addiction. More disturbing, news articles in recent months have reported incidents of young people playing marathon sessions online, sometimes even to the point of accidental death or suicide.

It’s encouraging to see the AMA taking the lead on this issue in this country. Awareness of a problem is the first step in prevention and intervention. An easy way to check for possible addiction is the “I’d rather” test. Would your kids rather play games than hang out with their friends, play sports, eat or go to sleep? Would they rather play games than watch TV, spend time with family members or see a movie? If they answer yes to a disproportionate number of these questions, they may be in trouble.

Some physical signs of video game addiction include carpal tunnel syndrome, sleep disturbances, back and neck aches, headaches, dry eyes, failure to eat regularly, and neglect of personal hygiene.

While physicians and psychological consultants familiar with addiction can help determine whether a child has a real addiction, parents need to make sure they are dealing with someone who knows about the problem. Fortunately, the AMA’s efforts to spotlight this issue and calls for greater parental monitoring should make finding qualified professionals easier.

Additional research and dialogue is required to address this growing health and psychological problem. The issue is too new and complex for many families, health experts and policymakers to fully grasp. It is too soon to expect changes in policy and behaviors. Yet even though the AMA deferred a final decision on video game addiction, by simply discussing the issue the organization has brought families a little closer to finding remedies for this growing public health problem.